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Search for alien laser pulses from a strange star system reports back

One of the most mysterious stars in the galaxy prompted astronomers to check for signals from an intelligent civilization, and now they've shared their findings.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
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Eric Mack
3 min read

Decades of space exploration have produced no definitive proof of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. But one of the most intriguing places we've looked so far is a distant star named KIC 8462852 (sometimes called "Boyajian's Star" or "Tabby's Star"). Some scientists were interested enough in the odd and inexplicable drops in the star's light to look specifically for laser signals possibly sent our way from supersmart aliens there.

kic-8462852-small.jpg

Artist's representation of a crumbling Dyson sphere orbiting KIC 8462852

Danielle Futselaar/METI International

The results of that search were published June 24 in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. The short version?

"The hypothesis of an alien megastructure around KIC 8462852 is rapidly crumbling apart," Douglas Vakoch, president of METI International and an author of the paper, said on METI's website. "We found no evidence of an advanced civilization beaming intentional laser signals toward Earth."

The mysterious Boyajian's Star was observed by the Kepler Space Telescope and a crowdsourced citizen science effort overseen by Yale's Tabetha Boyajian. She authored a paper introducing this star and its significant and irregular dimming from our world's perspective. That paper (PDF) suggested that a swarm of comets around the star was the best explanation anyone could come up with for the unusual observations.

But as I reported last year, other researchers with an interest in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) saw Boyajian's Star as an ideal candidate to check for signs of not only life, but perhaps even real smarts. Other papers were written about the possibility of huge alien megastructures causing the strange dips in starlight and the SETI Institute wasted no time pointing an array of radio telescopes at the star to listen for any alien transmissions announcing a distant civilization's presence.

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That search yielded no sign of radio signal beacons from across the cosmos and, sadly for E.T. fans, the first search for laser billboards proving we are not alone in the universe has also turned up nothing.

While there's still no sign of life around one of the galaxy's weirdest stars just yet, it can't be totally ruled out for now.

METI International (Messaging Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) used the Boquete Optical SETI Observatory in Panama to look for laser pulses as short as a billionth of a second over six nights between October 29 and November 28, 2015. To pick up a signal, it would have to have been beamed intentionally in the direction of Earth and exceed the observatory's minimum detectable limit.

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"Considering the large distance to KIC 8462852 (454 parsecs) and the small telescope aperture, it is still possible that a pulsed laser signal, even if directed toward us, could be well below the 67 photons m-2 detection limit of the Boquete instrument," the paper reads.

Something else to keep in mind is that the star is almost 1,500 light-years away from us, meaning any laser pulses we might see here would have actually been sent just as the Roman Empire was coming to an end. So it's possible that any alien civilization on KIC 846852 has developed better messaging technology since then and targeted laser pulses are on their way to Earth right now.

Or ... there's nothing but the typically quiet planets and the occasional swarm of comets and other galactic debris orbiting that distant star. Even most scientists working on SETI (including the handful I've spoken with over the past year) will concede something less exciting than aliens is probably the most likely explanation for whatever is happening around the most interesting star we've seen in years. But it's still worth checking.